No ignorance and also no ending of ignorance, until we come to no old age and death and no ending of old age and death.
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This part of The Heart Sutra refers to the formula of the Twelve Links in the Chain of Causation: These are in the sphere of the five skandhas. As we have seen, the five skandhas were found to be empty; consequently, the twelve links are also void. The pratyekabuddha, or saint, of the Middle Vehicle, who practices the Dharma of the Twelve Links and who has attained Enlightenment by that means, is liberated from his or her allotment of birth and death, but has not yet reached the realm of Buddhahood. However, the Buddha taught the Prajna Paramita Sutra to bring people closer to the attainment of Buddhahood by means of a deep understanding of all dharmas as manifesting Reality and Emptiness. Hence, someone endowed with superior wisdom and the highest potential who understands that all dharmas are void can attain Buddhahood immediately.

The attainment of the pratyekabuddha is the outcome of his or her practice based on the Dharma of the Twelve Links in the Chain of Causation, or causes and conditions. Causes and conditions act as the support for the twelve links, a concept which confuses people even further. Ignorance conditions karmic action; karmic action conditions consciousness; consciousness conditions name and form; name and form condition the six sense-doors (sense-organs); the six sense-organs condition contact; contact conditions sensation; sensation conditions craving; craving conditions grasping; grasping conditions becoming; becoming conditions birth; birth conditions old age and death, sorrow, pain, grief, lamentation, despair and anguish. The Twelve Links in the Chain of Causation, in combination with causes and conditions, illustrate how confusion contributes to human suffering.

Let me explain further. Ignorance in the context of the Buddha’s teaching means either not knowing or knowing incorrectly; the term is interchangeable with confusion. Assumptions based on ignorance support or condition unskillful actions. Action rooted in confusion reinforces the bias generated by ignorance.

Consciousness is the prime agent in the selection of conditions for rebirth: If there is confusion present during the intermediate existence between death and rebirth, proper conditions for the next existence will not be recognized. In this respect, it is consciousness that conditions name and form.

Name and form at the beginning of a new existence are simply the sperm of the father combined with ovum and blood of the mother; the form already exists, but the name part has yet to develop. The eighteen realms, that eventually come into existence, will be conditioned from the very beginning by name and form.

The six organs develop on the basis of corporeality and of the seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and knowing natures, with a discriminatory bias already built in. The six senses develop on the basis of the six organs: The six organs, being the sense-doors, condition contact.

Contact takes place when a sense-organ produces sense data in response to stimulation. In the case of a newborn, the earliest experience is tactile: There is an abrupt change of environment in terms of temperature and texture, causing intense discomfort in the newborn baby, making it cry. The contact conditions sensation.

As the range of stimuli widens, diversity of contact increases; the material sense-organs develop accordingly, each becoming progressively specialized and its own realm more and more specific. Eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind develop preferences and aversions, giving rise to greed and anger. Therefore, it is said that sensation conditions craving.

Craving is sometimes interpreted as thirst. Initially, it is the thirst for the continuation of one’s existence, construed as independent. That notion is the anchor for the impulse to grasp. Grasping leads inevitably to clinging, which brings new becoming in its wake.

Becoming may be described as setting the stage for new birth. It is the unavoidable outcome of grasping.

Birth is conditioned by becoming. It introduces a new round in the cyclic pattern of existence; because there is birth, old age and death automatically follow.

Old age and death require care and produce pain, grief and anguish. Most human beings when approaching death are ravaged by grief and anxiety. They hold on to their thirst for existence, which is entrenched through lifelong habits; their suffering and their fear are similar to what a tortoise experiences when its shell is removed. Death and dying are frequently accompanied by manifestations of grief.

Birth, death and all the suffering in between arise because of ignorance and supportive conditions, and ordinary people have no choice but to continue the cycle of continual rebirth in the Six Realms. The pratyekabuddha, understanding the source of defilement and of birth and death and on hearing the Dharma of the Twelve Links in the Chain of Causation, will generate the mind of Tao and practice to end his or her own suffering. He or she will attain the path and fruit of the Middle Vehicle, thereby ending the allotment of birth and death.

To free oneself from confusion or ignorance is requisite for right, or correct, practice. When ignorance is eliminated, all delusory activity ceases. There is no more fuel to feed delusion, and, thus, consciousness is extinguished, which means that there is no more birth, no more death. With the six sense-organs extinguished, there is no more contact. In the absence of contact and sensation, there is no longer any greed or hatred, no craving and, therefore, no grasping (no karmic activity); without grasping there can be no becoming, which means that all future rebirths are extinguished. Without birth there is no aging and death, and that is the end of pain, grief, lamentation and anguish.

The Buddha taught the Prajna Paramita Dharma to awaken practitioners to the teaching of the Void and to make them receptive to it. The Chinese term Wu (none, nothing) implies putting an end to grasping; to understand the essential Void of all existence is to understand the True Mind. To see one’s Self Nature enables the swift attainment of Buddhahood, because, when ignorance is recognized as void, there is nothing left to break off. Therefore the Sutra says, “Also, no ending of ignorance.” Since, originally, there is no such thing as old age and death (the products of conceptual mind), the Sutra says, “Until we come to no old age and death and to no ending of old age and death.”

"Also, there is no truth of suffering, of the cause of suffering, of the cessation of suffering, or of the Path."
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This sentence deals with the Void as the ground of the Four Noble Truths. What are they? They are Suffering, the Cause of Suffering, the Cessation of Suffering and the Path. This teaching transcends the mundane and provides access to sainthood. A saint from the Theravada tradition attains the Path and the Fruit on the basis of his or her practice of The Four Noble Truths. The Mahayana attainment is in the realm of the supramundane. The suffering spoken of is the suffering in this world. Its causes are, likewise, of this world; the Path is operative in this world; and Nirvana, or the cessation of suffering, is our exit from this world. The Path provides the right causes for the Tao, and the practice is aimed toward Enlightenment.

The first of the Noble Truths is presented in three aspects: 1) As ordinary suffering, which includes all forms of physical and mental pain and ache; 2) As the outcome of the impermanent nature of life, wherein all the fleeting pleasures are illusory, temporary, and subject to change; 3) As the five aggregates, or conditioned states, wherein form, feeling, conception, volition and consciousness, the last being based on the first four, are constantly changing and, hence, impermanent; and what is impermanent is, inevitably, the cause of suffering.

The six realms of existence comprise three good, or happy ones and three evil, or unhappy ones. The first three are the realm of heavenly beings, the realm of human beings and the realm of asuras (titans). The last three consist of the realm of hell, the realm of hungry ghosts, and the realm of animals. The form sphere and the formless sphere both provide much longer life continuity than this world does, and more happiness as well; but they are still subject to birth, death and the suffering of the consequences of action. The sphere of desire in the human realm provides equal parts of happiness and suffering; but the asuras, though enjoying blessings, are without morality, and their good fortune will eventually end.

The inhabitants of the three happy realms have created good causes in their former lives, and, depending on how they benefit others, they will receive rewards accordingly in this world. There is no need to explain at length the three unhappy realms. All we need to say is that there is a great deal of suffering there. The suffering of those inhabiting unhappy realms is the present effect of causes from their previous lives. All suffering is produced by the mind. One reaps as one sows!

What is the cause of suffering? The second of the Noble Truths posits the cause, or origin, of suffering as craving, or thirst, which produces continuous re-existence and re-becoming accompanied by passionate clinging. Numerous causes come together, and we know that our present suffering is the effect of those previous causes. Likewise, our present behavior is the foundation for future effects.

What effect has the supramundane on the cessation of suffering?
The third of the Noble Truths follows logically from the first two. If craving is removed or transcended, there will be no more suffering. Cessation means calmness and extinction, or Nirvana: It is inviting, attractive and comprehensible to the wise. The one who understands the source of suffering thoroughly knows that it is generated by one’s own self, so, yearning for Nirvana, such a person resolves to practice and attain the Path and the Fruit—namely, Nirvana.

What is the cause of the Noble Truth of the Path? Having analyzed the meaning of life, the Buddha demonstrated to his disciples how to deal effectively with suffering. The fourth Noble Truth makes the teaching a complete whole. Those who focus their desire on attaining the supramundane Nirvana can break off the causes of suffering and practice toward Enlightenment.

The practitioner of the Way of the Four Noble Truths should reach an understanding of the cause of suffering and direct his or her efforts toward the dissolution of the cause of suffering, resolve to attain Nirvana, and from then on practice wholeheartedly. Following his Enlightenment, the Buddha taught the Avatamsaka Sutra, but some hearers had difficulty understanding it; therefore, he applied expedient means to accommodate them. His teaching of the Four Noble Truths was threefold: 1) by contemplation of the manifestations of suffering; 2) by exhortation; 3) by using his own attainment as an example and as encouragement.

Now, let us consider these expedients in more detail:

1) By contemplation of the manifestations of suffering
There are several kinds of suffering people are forced to endure in order to survive and to get the basic necessities of life. The ordinary form of suffering includes birth, old age, sickness, death, parting from what we love, meeting what we hate, unattained aims, and all the other ills of the five skandhas. Where does this suffering come from? It is generated by nothing other than one’s own self.

The cause of suffering is a cluster of six root-defilements: Greed, hatred, ignorance, pride, doubt and heterodox views. The lesser defilements are diversified varieties of the six root-defilements. The twenty secondary afflictions are belligerence, resentment, spite, concealment, deceit, dissimulation, haughtiness, harmfulness, jealousy, miserliness, non-shame, non-embarrassment, non-faith, laziness, non-conscientiousness, lethargy, excitement, forgetfulness, non-introspection, and distraction. The six root-defilements and the twenty secondary afflictions together cause all the suffering in the world.

Cessation of suffering can be attained; it is possible to end the cycle (allotment) of birth-and-death, put aside the four conditions of mortality and attain appealing, joyful Nirvana. To follow the Theravada practice means, however, not to halt the mortal changes of the round of births and still to have some obstruction regarding Emptiness.

Those who have resolved to practice and attain because of their ardent wish to reach Nirvana should observe the thirty-seven conditions leading to Bodhi. The three studies, or three pillars, of practice—discipline, meditation and wisdom—represent the thirty-seven conditions in condensed form. The practice of discipline removes the obstacle of greed, meditation reduces delusion, and the two combined foster wisdom. The Tao is reachable for the Buddha’s followers only with diligent practice.

2) By exhortation
Using the expressions and the tone of a concerned teacher or a parent, the Buddha would, at times, urge his followers, saying, “You should understand how people are forced to endure their predicament” or “The cessation of suffering can be attained, so you ought to make the effort; you should practice” and so on.

3) By using his own attainment as an example and as encouragement
Using this expedient, the Buddha would often urge his followers, saying, “The problem of suffering can be resolved; look, I did it and so can you” or “The causes of suffering are cumulative. The sooner you eliminate or transcend them, the quicker you will be free once and for all; I freed myself and now I don’t have to worry any more” and the like.

In his time, the Buddha set the wheel in motion by teaching the Four Noble Truths, and the hearers (sravakas) attained Arhatship. After years of teaching, the Buddha taught the Dharma of Emptiness (Sunyata) to promote the understanding of the supramundane Void of True Existence. We have already seen the emptiness of the five skandhas, and now we perceive the Dharma of the Four Noble Truths to be void as well. In this light, we can clearly understand that there is no suffering, no cause of suffering, no cessation of suffering or no Path. There is only the reflection in the mirror; and without the reflection there is no ability to reflect. The reflection then, is not separate from that which reflects it; the reflective surface and the reflection are one. To understand this means to be close to Enlightenment.

"There is no wisdom, and there is no attainment whatsoever.
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This part of The Heart Sutra concerns the teaching of the Six Paramitas, or the Bodhisattva, practice as explained in the Tripitaka. Allowing one’s actions to be guided by one or all of the Paramitas, one will surely attain the Path and the Fruit. For each of the aforementioned six fundamental defilements there is one of the Six Paramitas, or Perfections of Virtue, to be used as a specific antidote.

Charity eliminates greed, discipline cures laziness, patience overcomes hatred, determination overcomes laxity, meditation cools the mind making it receptive to wisdom, and wisdom dispels ignorance. The Mahayana doctrine of action and principle differs from that of the Theravada regarding intent. In addition to one’s actions that should follow the Paramitas, one is expected, according to the Mahayana understanding of the Bodhisattva path, to endeavor to liberate all sentient beings by leading them onward and upward while simultaneously seeking his or her own enlightenment. If, however, one has not cut off grasping completely, one’s very wisdom becomes colonized by consciousness, thus, turning into an obstacle rather than being a virtue.

According to the Buddha, “There is no wisdom and there is no attainment whatsoever.” It means that the Paramitas and the Bodhisattva action, as promulgated by the Tripitaka, are not things to be grasped, conceptualized, manipulated or used. However, this is the perspective of the Mahayana Dharma only. Such an idea of Emptiness is evident neither in the practice nor in the wisdom and also not in Buddhahood, for that matter, in the teachings of the Theravadins.

The Dharma of Emptiness is characterized by the concept of Emptiness as the substance of all dharmas. In this light, then, even the Six Paramitas and the Bodhisattva action are the reflection in the mirror, since they, too, are all amenable to change and, therefore, empty of self. The already introduced Chinese term Wu (none, nothing) expresses the true nature of the mirror, or its capacity to receive and relinquish all that goes on in front of it without holding on to any part of it. Thus, if the Paramitas are practiced with the understanding that they are rooted in Emptiness, the Great Enlightenment can be attained. Non-wisdom is the True Wisdom, non-attainment is the True Attainment. This is what it means to practice the Prajna Paramita deeply; then, the five fundamental conditions of the passions and delusions stop, and the two kinds of birth and death are finished forever.

In addition to the Paramitas of Bodhisattva action, there is another set of Six Paramitas of principle as part of the teachings of the Intermediate School (Tung Jiao). Action and principle are not separated in the teaching of the Differentiated School (Bie Jiao); but in the Original, or Genuine School (Yuan Jiao), the Six Paramitas are practiced as non-action, and this practice leads to perfect Wisdom and to the supreme Bodhi.

"Because there is nothing to be attained, the Bodhisattva, relying on the Prajna Paramita, has no obstruction in his mind.
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“Nothing to be attained” is the all-important theme of the Sutra. The obstruction alluded to in the above sentence refers to the three obstructions of function, to wit: 1) the karmic obstruction, or the obstruction of deeds done in the past; 2) the obstruction of retribution; 3) the obstruction of passion.

The above quote implies that the supramundane Void is the True Existence of all dharmas, and for that same reason no dharmas can be obtained. Since the Bodhisattva cannot seek outside help when dealing with obstructions, he has to rely on insights provided by his own radiant wisdom for his attainment of freedom. The first to be eliminated is the obstruction of retribution, which is of two kinds: the dependent condition (one’s circumstances) and the resultant person (one’s physical condition). The Bodhisattva has already discarded these two kinds of obstruction, and the different sorts of anxiety have all vanished from his mind.

"Because there is no obstruction, he has no fear;
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This clause is about discarding obstruction to action. Not to be obstructed by body and mind means to be free of worry and fear. The practice of Bodhisattva action engenders five kinds of fear, and those who have not yet broken off delusion and who are in the early stages of the Bodhisattva career are particularly susceptible: 1) fear of being left without sustenance after giving away all possessions; 2) fear of being insignificant after giving up one’s reputation of accomplishment; 3) fear of dying in situations that call for self-sacrifice; 4) fear of falling into evil circumstances; 5) fear of addressing an assembly, especially one with important people present. These five fears, then, obstruct Dharma practice, and without them there is no more obstruction to action.

"And, thus, he passes far beyond confused imagination
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This clause is related to the obstacle, or obstruction, of passion. That obstruction has its root in the defilement of confusion, or ignorance, which manifests as mistaking the impermanent for the permanent, the ugly for the beautiful, and suffering for happiness. It is the way of people of mundane interests. The Bodhisattva, however, whose conception has been clarified through Prajna has been liberated to a great extent from that obstruction.

And reaches Ultimate Nirvana.
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When there is no more mental pain or grief, Nirvana becomes perceptible, comprehensible, inviting and attractive. It is the complete and final cessation of greed and craving, hatred and ignorance and, therefore, the cessation of rebirth and of the continuity of life. Then, the Dharmakaya, Prajna and, consequently, Freedom manifest themselves to their fullest. Nirvana cannot be expressed through words; it has to be experienced.

"The Buddhas of the past, present and future, also relying on thePrajna Paramita, have attained Supreme Enlightenment.
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In this sentence, Prajna is proclaimed to be the perfect, ultimate Dharma of supreme relevance not only to Bodhisattvas but also to all past, present and future Buddhas as well.

"Therefore, the Prajna Paramita is the great magic spell, the great spell of illumination, the supreme spell, which can truly protect one from all suffering without fail."
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The above segment of The Heart Sutra praises the merits of Prajna. The term spell suggests that the theme and the essence of this Sutra transcend all intellectual concepts; its power and its strength are operative in realms not amenable to manipulation. Furthermore, its effect can manifest instantaneously, transcending the worldly, attaining holiness.

Hence, he uttered the spell of the Prajna Paramita, saying, "Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate. Bodhi, Svaha!"
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The above is a mantra, which is an esoteric teaching by means of which we are reminded of the subtlety and complexity of the inconceivable Dharma. The body of Teachings includes some exoteric parts, such as the sutras, and some esoteric ones, such as the dharanis, or mantras. Exoteric Teachings are accessible to rational understanding and can be explained, but the meanings of the esoteric or mystic forms of prayer, such as dharanis, or mantras, are not within the reach of the intellect; thus, the good is upheld and cannot be lost nor can evil arise. During recitation, dharanis, or mantras, enable the one reciting them to control both the sound and the timing, but any recognizable words and meaning which would normally hold his or her mind captive are not there. One then has an opportunity to experience expansiveness, or spaciousness, of mind, one of its very special characteristics.

To recite the above mantra by itself, omitting the text of the Sutra, is a true Mahayana practice of non-discriminating mind. The inconceivable nature of the Teaching is apprehended and the teaching seen as a whole. Through study, the Sutra and a complete understanding of it equal the meaning implied in the mantra (sometimes referred to as spell).

This explication of The Heart Sutra, including both the exoteric and the esoteric aspects, is presently completed. As a final word, let me caution that any contrived or faulty interpretations of the Teachings ought to be carefully avoided.

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